Read This Before Buying a Car Online

(Here's what you need to know first)
Ryan Hanley headshot photo. Written by Ryan Hanley
Ryan Hanley headshot photo.
Written by Ryan Hanley

Ryan Hanley is a public speaker, podcaster and author of the Amazon best-seller, “Content Warfare.” Ryan has over 15 years of insurance expertise.

A casual couple looking at cars on a laptop.

As the digital age settles in to stay, consumers are becoming more and more comfortable ordering all sorts of goods online. From clothing to books to electronics, Internet sales are quickly approaching $200 billion annually in the U.S.

Some of those sales now include cars. Most brick and mortar dealerships now offer Internet sales departments, and various new websites feature online car sales only. The number of consumers purchasing their next vehicle with a click of a mouse is increasing.

Many car buyers still prefer the old method of car shopping over the digital way, however. Find out here if buying cars online might be a great method for you - or not worth the hassle. And make sure you're covered with affordable car insurance.

Most Car Buyers Shop Online, Buy in Person

The car buying advisers and consumer advocates at Edmunds, Popular Mechanics and Kelley Blue Book all recommend, at the very least, to "shop" for your next car online. This is actually less like shopping and more like research.

Whether you are perusing a dealership's website or the many car buying sites available, you should be able to find the following important information during your search:

  • The type of car or truck you'd like to own
  • The safety and other features that are important to you
  • The car's MSRP or sticker price (the price the dealer "wants" you to pay for the car)
  • The invoice price (the cost of the car to the dealer)

With this information, you can compare dealer to dealer and car to car, finding the best deals possible. You will find different results using different online tools, and that's the point. Don't be discouraged if one website tells you a car is $5,000 more than your budget. The next hit may be in the Goldilocks zone.

Pay Attention to the Details

Many dealer websites even have a tool that will calculate your current car's trade-in value, which can help drop the total price oo the new car you're looking to buy. While most people trust the resale value for their vehicle as listed in the Kelley Blue Book, many dealers also use the National Automobile Dealers Association's listed trade-in value. 

You can look up your particular car on either of these organizations' websites by plugging in your car's condition and mileage; this will keep the dealer honest. If the dealer's website offers you a trade-in value that deviates drastically from either the KBB or the NADA, you may wish to decline and sell the car yourself.

Another important detail to look for when shopping for cars online is whether the dealer’s website lists the Vehicle Identification Number along with the vehicle’s photo. If you can't find the VIN, chances are the dealer doesn't actually have the car on the lot and the price will reflect that they have to order it. 

Also, look for real photos and not just stock photos from the manufacturer. The dealer may have a photo of a silver model you're eying, but when they deliver the car: Surprise! It's green.

Don't Let Your Fingers Do All the Talking

Buying cars online can save you time and effort, but don't let the impersonal nature of the Internet discourage you from contacting the dealer by phone. Most dealerships have entire online car buying sales departments (or at least one rep they assign to online purchases). Be sure to call the dealer and speak to that person. Sometimes dealers will only give you an online price quote if you contact them by email or phone.

Websites often target window-shoppers and lack the details as to the various fees the dealer will want to charge you. Use the opportunity of having the Internet sales rep on the phone to figure out how to have some of those charges reduced or eliminated. Some of them are negotiable.

Another added perk of buying a car online is that it significantly increases your access to prices and features. You may never have driven for hours to the dealer in the next city, but you can take a few minutes to shop around their website and call their Internet sales department in a fraction of the time.


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Order a Third-Party Inspection

The greatest drawback to buying a car online is you can't do those things that seem to go with buying a car. You can't peek under the hood and nod in approval. You can't kick the tires, and you can't take it for a test drive. It is especially important to have the car or truck inspected by a professional if it is a used car.

Put that gas money and time saved to better use, and hire a mechanic to check out the car for you. Most will offer pre-purchase vehicle inspections for around $100, and they will send the report to you.

You can use the report's results to negotiate the price, decline their offer or feel comfortable in purchasing the car online.

Choose the Right Service and Options for You

If you are using an online car buying service, it may not be possible to have the car inspected, unless it is a transaction through one of their partner dealerships. That's less important if you are ordering a new vehicle, but some consumers are still uncomfortable with it.

The other thing to remember about these online car buying services is that there may be less room to negotiate. They promise the lowest prices available, but that's not always the case. That's why careful research during the first phase of the process is so important. 

If you prefer the haggle-free new car buying experience, an online service may be right for you. If you don't feel you've done your part until you've made a sales rep sweat a bit, you can still order a car online through the dealer's Internet sales department.

Enjoy Your New Car

The beauty of using an online car buying service is that it comes to you and not the other way around. Once you've finished shopping (aka researching), set up a time and location for the delivery of the car right to your door. Don't let the cost of delivery eat up your savings, however. 

Some car buying services use their own delivery companies and build the shipping costs right into the price of the car. Others allow you to choose your own delivery method. Be sure to shop around for the best price on shipping as well.

If you have gone through a dealer's Internet sales department, you may still have to visit them in person to sign the important documents, such as the bill of sale. Generally, the dealer will have the car waiting for pickup at this time. This is also when they will try to sell you an extended warranty and dealer add-ons to bump up your purchase price. Always read the fine print carefully, and reject any suspicious deals.

You can use online services for other things, too - like shopping for auto insurance quotes. Independent agents often have the most competitive rates and best service because they're not attached to a single parent company. Independent insurance agents can make your online auto insurance shopping simple.

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